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Archive for June, 2011

State ID Legislation Threatens to Disenfranchise Homeless Voters

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness

“If you have to show a picture ID to buy Sudafed, if you have to show a picture ID to get on an airplane, you should show a picture ID when you vote.” This is South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley’s justification for a new bill in the state that requires voters to produce photographic identification at the polls. Signed into law on May 18th, the bill also requires voters to produce a voter registration card, and one containing a photograph can be acquired for free with a birth certificate or passport.

South Carolina is far from alone in passing this measure. As of date, fourteen states have passed laws requiring photo identification, with sixteen more having other proof of residence voting requirements, such as presenting a credit card, utility bill, birth certificate, or paycheck if the voter does not have another form of identification. The stated goal of most supporters of this kind of legislation is to reduce voter fraud by making it more difficult for people to vote more than once in an election or for non-citizens to vote.

This trend is only becoming more and more widespread: according to The Brennan Center for Justice, “at least 37 states are considering or have considered voter ID and/or proof of citizenship” bills in this legislative session alone. The graph below shows the astounding recent increase in photo ID legislation passage:

These measures may in fact disenfranchise many American citizens who would otherwise be able to vote. A New York Times Editorial arguing against this type of legislation cites a survey by the Brennan Center for Justice which finds that 11% of American citizens who are of voting age (21 million people) do not have up-to-date photo identification, with that percentage being significantly higher among those with low incomes (15%) and African-Americans (25%). Furthermore, this was a phone survey, so the nation’s entire homeless population was, in all likelihood, not remotely accounted for in the results. If anything, these percentages are likely to be higher among the entire American electorate.

In theory, making photographic identification free, as some of these laws also do, should make it easy for citizens to acquire one and be able to vote. However, it is not that simple. Although most of these state laws have alternatives to using identification on election day, such as provisional ballots and affidavit forms, many of them still put a de facto price on voting for those who simply do not have the means to easily obtain a birth certificate, find out their Social Security number, or to make a trip to the DMV for a state-issued ID, such as the impoverished, disabled, and homeless. The key problem here, as was outlined by Professor Justin Levitt of Loyola Law School in a NPR discussion on the topic, is that “it takes ID to get ID.” Even if finances are not an issue, which they certainly are for individuals and families experiencing homelessness, it can still be “quite difficult to round up the documentation necessary to get documentation. It ends up a little bit of a bureaucratic cycle,” possibly causing voter apathy.

Overall, this legislation puts even more roadblocks in the way for the homeless to vote than there already are. Even though its supporters may indeed have the noble intention of reducing voter fraud, the issue of fraud itself is virtually “nonexistent” according to the New York Times. Regardless of how large or small of a problem voter fraud actually is, the large possibility remains that a surprisingly large number of Americans, at least 21 million, stand to effectively lose their vote if this legislation spreads nationwide unless they acquire a photo ID, which is certainly easier said than done for our marginalized populations, including the homeless.

To find out your state’s current voter identification laws, you can visit the National Conference of State Legislatures voter ID page. Also, New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice has an up to date report on the progress of voter ID legislation by state.

By Daniel Honeycutt, Intern

NOW AVAILABLE! NCH’s Summary of Key Findings from HUD’s 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Advocacy, Awareness, Report

Check out NCH’s useful one pager of key findings and statistics from the report:

On June 14, 2011, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development released its 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. The report details statistics of the homelessness population and examines the progress/usage of HUD initiatives. NCH created an overview of the most important facts from it, which you can see here.

Legislating Hate

Written by NCH Staff on . Posted in Awareness, Civil Rights, Hate Crimes, Violence Against the Homeless

Hate exists in American society.  Sadly, some individuals act upon hateful urges and cause harm to innocent human beings; harm ranging from minor assault to brutal death.  In an effort to curb hateful violence, Congress and many State governments have enacted statutes that increase punishment for those acts targeted at individuals because of such individual’s status.  The intent of such laws, and the punishments attached, are to send a message to society that our criminal justice system does not tolerate hate.

Unfortunately, the federal government and most States do not categorize homelessness as a protected status from hate.  This means that in most places in America a “homeless hater,” unprovoked, could attack a homeless person sleeping on a bench, and when being tried for the crime, the hater would be punished for the action, but not for the motive of action.  Not punishing a person’s reason for acting sends the message that the act is wrong, but the motive behind the act is acceptable.

On August 9, 1999, in Seattle, Washington, three young men beat and stabbed David Ballenger, 46, to death.  David had no valuable possessions to steal.  David was not involved in drugs, or the associated violence. And David did not verbally or physically entice his attackers. David was simply murdered because he was homeless. In fact, a Seattle newspaper quoted one of the perpetrators boasting that there was “one less bum on the face of the earth.”

The attack began as a verbal barrage, the young men criticizing David for not being able to make a living.  When David walked away, his attackers followed and began beating him.  Resisting, David escaped, but the young men found him, elevated the violence, and stabbed the helpless David Ballenger to death.  This senseless murder is not the only instance of inhumanity toward the homeless in Washington.  In fact, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2009 there were 21 reported incidents of violence directed at homeless individuals, 12 of which resulting in death.

Over a decade after David Ballenger’s brutal murder, on January 10, 2011, Washington State Senator Scott White (D-Seattle) introduced legislation in response to the violence toward the homeless.  White’s legislation seeks to include offenses that were intentionally committed because the defendant perceived the victim to be homeless to the criteria for aggravating circumstances under which an exceptional sentence above the standard range may be imposed.  On March 2, 2011 the Senate passed White’s bill with a vote of 49 – 0. The bill was then sent to the House, and the following month the legislation was passed 92 – 1 (Republican Jason Overstreet was the sole dissenter; Republican members Terry Nealey, Kevin Parker, Jay Rodne, and Charles Ross, abstained from the vote) Finally on April 15, 2011, almost 12 years after the brutal murder of David Ballenger, Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire signed White’s bill into law, making offenses committed because a victim was homeless an aggravating circumstance.

But what does this really mean once we climb past the legal jargon?

Practically, the passage of Washington S.B. 5011 (White’s bill) means that if an offense against a person was intentionally committed because that person was perceived to be homeless (the aggravating circumstance), courts will have the option to impose tougher penalties (the exceptional sentence).  However, before a Judge can make a decision regarding the exceptional sentence, the jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt that the aggravating circumstance exists.  S.B. 5011 did not create the concept of increased punishment for certain acts.  Rather, it added homelessness to an already lengthy list of other aggravating circumstances existing in Washington State criminal law.  This statute does not create homelessness as a protected category from hate, but it is a step in the right direction.

by Shane M. Poole

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